What type of deference to science do we owe each other?24 July 2023
How should the public respond to science communication, and how can science be communicated in a way that promotes such a response? A combination of philosophical and empirical research may provide some answers.
A scientifically informed public is an important dimension of deliberative democracy. More specifically, grand societal challenges, such as the climate crisis and global pandemics, require science-based policy and a public that supports it. However, these issues are often socially polarizing. An unfortunate consequence is that there is widespread science skepticism about some of the very issues where laypersons’ uptake of science communication matters the most: the climate, vaccine safety, gun laws etc.
In response to this challenge a nascent interdisciplinary field, the science of science communication, seeks to diagnose science skepticism and devise science communication strategies that might mitigate the problem (Jamieson et al. 2020). While empirical researchers have made some progress, there are questions at the foundations of this project which empirical scientists are less likely to ask, but which come natural to philosophers. In my recent book, Scientific Testimony, I seek to integrate empirical work on science communication with philosophical reflection (Gerken 2022). Here I will briefly address one such foundational question which concerns science communication to the lay public:
How should laypersons respond to science communication?
While the question is admittedly abstract, the answer to it bears on the mutual civic duties in democracies and it has consequences for how science is best communicated to laypersons.
One answer is that laypersons should defer to science communication unless there are stronger reasons not to do so. Such a line could lend support from a general epistemology of testimony it is common to say that one may accept testimony by default (Burge 1993; Gerken 2011).
However, default acceptance principles that govern basic testimony are not as plausible when it comes to laypersons’ uptake of public scientific testimony. If someone makes a surprising claim about child development and you have no idea that she is a developmental psychologist, it is not clear that you may uncritically accept her testimony. So, default acceptance principles may be too strong. But there’s also a sense in which default acceptance principles may be too weak. They do not reflect that some factors that tend to defeat ordinary testimony do not tend to defeat public scientific testimony. For example, widespread disagreement is ordinarily a good reason to suspend judgment about the testimony from one of the disagreeing parties. But, as vaccine hesitancy or skepticism about global warming exemplify, there is social disagreement about many issues where there is scientific consensus on the basis of overwhelming evidence. In many such cases, it is reasonable to accept public scientific testimony even though it is disagreed upon among the lay public (Gerken 2020). Likewise, it may be reasonable to accept public scientific testimony that is contrary to one’s gut feeling.
A radically alternative approach is based on the idea that one should accept someone’s testimony is rational only if one has good reasons to do so (Fricker 1994; Sperber et al. 2010). This idea may be extended to laypersons’ uptake of public scientific testimony. If so, laypersons should only accept science communication if they have vigilantly assessed the source or the issue. However, often this approach seems unrealistically demanding. Moreover, it seems reasonable enough that our reliance on science is often deferential. After all, the relevant science is typically epistemically superior to alternative sources at our disposal. Relatedly, laypersons’ understanding of most specialized science is generally so limited that epistemic vigilance is of little use. Deferring to science communication is often a good cognitive strategy for the lay public. Epistemic vigilantes are as problematic as the gullible.
How to steer between the Scylla of default acceptance and the Charybdis of overly demanding epistemic vigilance? My suggestion is that a proper layperson response to science communication is often characterized by what I call ‘appreciative deference.’ Roughly, appreciative deference is the basis of my acceptance of science communication whenever I recognize that it is an epistemically credible source regarding the issue at hand. For example, when my doctor tells me that a particular type of antibiotics will eliminate the infection, I accept her testimony because I recognize her as credible on this matter. My acceptance is a mode of deference in part because it is not defeated by my own reasoning, my gut feeling, or by other non-experts’ disagreement. However, it is not based merely on default acceptance but on my recognition of the sources’ epistemic credibility or on my recognition that the source is by far my epistemic superior on the matter. So, the basis of my acceptance of the testimony is an appreciative deference.
While there are plenty of exceptions, appreciative deference is generally a reasonable lay response to science communication. Importantly, appreciation comes in degrees. It may involve as little as deference solely on the basis of the broad idea that science is generally credible. But if I understand the strength and nature of the relevant scientific justification, my acceptance is based on a higher degree of appreciation. This is required in some cases and generally useful since I acquire discursive justification – i.e., the ability to articulate epistemic reasons for my belief (Gerken 2012, 2022).
The main advantage of forming belief on the basis of appreciative deference to science communication is that even members of the public with minimal understanding of science may, at a minimal cognitive cost, enjoy the epistemic benefits of science. From a societal point of view, it also seems advantageous if laypersons’ attitude to science communication is generally one of appreciative deference. Insofar as the science communication reflects the science well enough, the views of an appreciatively deferring public will largely converge on the scientists’ views. Hence, the public will be more likely to pursue and endorse scientifically informed decisions. A public norm of appreciative deference may also serve as a leveler for the epistemically disadvantaged. It would allow laypersons to acquire scientifically based beliefs that improves their ability to pursue their ends without serious cognitive costs that only the epistemically privileged can pay. It would also contribute to the ability of epistemically disadvantaged groups to be a part of social deliberation. If science plays its proper role in public discourse, it is an authority that both high and low may appeal to (Gerken 2022, Ch. 7).
Thus, a general stance of appreciative deference to science communication would appear to align with the ideals of deliberative democracy. If so, it also has consequences for science communication – i.e., how scientific findings, hypotheses, and theories should be communicated. In Scientific Testimony, I give both philosophical and empirical arguments that the following Justification Explication Norm (or ‘JEN’ for short) is often a good science communication strategy for scientific experts and science journalists alike:
Justification Explication Norm (JEN)
Public scientific testifiers should, whenever feasible, include appropriate aspects of the nature and strength of scientific justification, or lack thereof, for the scientific hypothesis in question.
The aim of JEN is not to ensure that the recipients always come to acquire the communicated scientific justification – even in laypersons’ terms. Rather, the aim is to allow recipients to recognize that the science communication is properly based on scientific justification. That is, a central aim is to enable laypersons to form beliefs on the basis of appreciative deference. That said, it is an advantage of JEN that the explication of the scientific justification in laypersons’ terms offer an opportunity to acquire a (partial) grasp of it. JEN also facilitates that layperson recipients become about as confident in the reported scientific hypotheses as the scientific community. Much science skepticism consists in the fact that some laypersons’ confidence in scientific hypotheses is much lower than the scientists’ confidence in it. But if the science communication is not properly qualified, the reverse may be the case. The public might become overconfident in a hypothesis. Such science optimism may be as problematic as science skepticism. Consequently, JEN prescribes qualifications that indicate how strong the relevant scientific justification is.
Existing empirical research provides some grounds for optimism about the effectiveness of JEN (Gerken 2022 surveys relevant empirical work). However, it must still be tested directly. Similarly, while I have sketched some philosophical arguments for regarding appreciative deference and JEN as reasonable, much more conceptual work remains to be done. The science of science communication is an exciting field, not only because it is important but also because it remains nascent and, hence, open for novel empirical and philosophical research.
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Jamieson, K. H., Kahan, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (Eds.). (2017). The Oxford Handbook of the Science
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Sperber, D., Clément, F., Heintz, C., Mascaro, O., Mercier, H., Origgi, G., & Wilson, D. (2010).
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Picture by Mikkel Gerken, Lappland